Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The attraction of the unexpected

I've always been fascinated by why people like particular pieces of music and not others.

It's extremely personal, and also rather mysterious and unpredictable.  This is why I find it funny when someone asks if I like classical music.  That's a little like saying, "Do you like food?"  I love some classical music, and some of it does nothing for me at all.  But what's eternally fascinating to me is that two people who are alike in a great many respects can come to completely opposite opinions about music.  Take my buddy Dave, for example, who is passionately fond of the Romantic composers -- Brahms, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky.  I, on the other hand, have never heard a piece of music by Brahms I've liked -- my tastes run more to the very early (Tallis, Susato, Praetorius, Palestrina, Bach) and the much more recent (Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Vaughan Williams, Holst).  If I had to pick one very favorite piece of music it would be Stravinsky's Firebird:

I'm hard-pressed to say why, however.  And what's the connection between that one, and the piece that had me bawling -- at age seventeen, no less -- the first time I heard it, Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis?:

One fascinating piece of the puzzle was discovered five years ago, when two researchers at Wesleyan University, Luke Harrison and Psyche Loui, found that people have strong physical reactions when listening to music they love, and if you hook them up to a fMRI or PET scanner, you find that at the climax of the piece of music, the same parts of the brain light up as when they have an orgasm.

No wonder we love music so much.

That whole tension/resolution thing, with its obvious parallels to sexual response, is pretty universal to music of all sorts.  I remember this being demonstrated to me when I was in the college chorus, and the director was telling us about dynamic tension in chord progression and resolution to the tonic, and demonstrated by going to the piano and playing us a line from the Christmas carol "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."  He played, "Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn."

And stopped.

About a dozen people sung out "KING" in tones that clearly communicated, "Don't leave us hanging, bro!"

So tension/resolution is part of it.  But just this week, a paper was published in Current Biology that added another piece to the puzzle.  Apparently, we also tend to like music that surprises us -- that takes us on a path that we didn't expect.

In "Uncertainty and Surprise Jointly Predict Musical Pleasure and Amygdala, Hippocampus, and Auditory Cortex Activity," neuroscientists Vincent K.M. Cheung, Lars Meyer, and Stefan Koelsch (of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences), Peter M.C. Harrison and Marcus T. Pearce (of the Queen Mary University of London), and John-Dylan Haynes (of the Charité РUniversitätsmedizin Berlin) found that we're grabbed by twists and turns we didn't see coming.

The authors write:
Listening to music often evokes intense emotions.  Recent research suggests that musical pleasure comes from positive reward prediction errors, which arise when what is heard proves to be better than expected.  Central to this view is the engagement of the nucleus accumbens—a brain region that processes reward expectations—to pleasurable music and surprising musical events...  Here, we demonstrate that pleasure varies nonlinearly as a function of the listener’s uncertainty when anticipating a musical event, and the surprise it evokes when it deviates from expectations.
That certainly agrees with my experience.  I love being surprised, and my favorite music (in any genre) often contains unexpected or startling rhythmic patterns.  Take, for example, the brilliant "Ring Out, Solstice Bells," by Jethro Tull:

I've played Balkan music for years -- with mutant time signatures like 11/16, 22/16, and (no lie) 25/16 -- and I'm damned if I can figure out what time signature this song is in.

And I love that.

My passion for music has been with me for a very, very long time.  My mother used to love to tell the story about how I pestered her incessantly (I couldn't have been more than three or four years old) to learn how to use the record player so I wouldn't have to ask her every time I wanted to listen to music (which was basically all the time).  She finally acquiesced -- and she was impressed that I cared enough about the music that I never damaged either the record player or one of the fragile, easily-scratched vinyl LPs that were all we had back then.  And there was one piece of music I played over and over and over and over, and my mom couldn't figure out (and of course, at that point I couldn't articulate) why I loved it so much.  This was the tail-end of the Big Band era, and my parents had several LPs from Lawrence Welk's band.  Most of them were "meh," in my opinion, but there was one that was different.

It's called "Scarlett O'Hara."  Listen for the completely unexpected key change -- not at all characteristic of Big Band music -- from A Major to (of all the weird keys...) B Major that happens a couple of times.  I used to get a visceral thrill from that moment, even at the tender age of four.

My favorite example of surprise, though, comes from classical music.  I distinctly remember the first time I listened to Bach's magnificent Mass in B Minor, and the sweet, sedate aria "Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus" drew to a close, and without any warning I was launched forward into the breathtaking chorus "Cum Sancto Spiritu:"

Talk about a brain orgasm.

So we're gradually figuring out some possible reasons for that mysterious phenomenon -- musical taste.

Since I'm on a roll and having way too much fun roaming around YouTube listening to music, I think I'll end with two more of my favorites, one rock and one classical.  I don't know if there's anything similar about them -- see if you can figure it out.  For now, I'm just enjoying listening.

The Kongos, "Come With Me Now:"

Jean Sibelius, Lemminkainen's Return:


Last week's Skeptophilia book recommendation was a fun book about math; this week's is a fun book about science.

In The Canon, New York Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Natalie Angier takes on a huge problem in the United States (and, I suspect, elsewhere), and does it with her signature clarity and sparkling humor: science illiteracy.

Angier worked with scientists from a variety of different fields -- physics, geology, biology, chemistry, meteorology/climatology, and others -- to come up with a compendium of what informed people should, at minimum, know about science.  In each of the sections of her book she looks at the basics of a different field, and explains concepts using analogies and examples that will have you smiling -- and understanding.

This is one of those books that should be required reading in every high school science curriculum.  As Angier points out, part of the reason we're in the environmental mess we currently face is because people either didn't know enough science to make smart decisions, or else knew it and set it aside for political and financial short-term expediency.  Whatever the cause, though, she's right that only education can cure it, and if that's going to succeed we need to counter the rote, dull, vocabulary-intense way science is usually taught in public schools.  We need to recapture the excitement of science -- that understanding stuff is fun.  

Angier's book takes a long stride in that direction.  I recommend it to everyone, layperson and science geek alike.  It's a whirlwind that will leave you laughing, and also marveling at just how cool the universe is.

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